Sermon 11-8-2015 “Laws and Love” (The Ten Commandments)
Walter Brueggeman, New Interpreters Bible Commentary; Exodus
Just a few days after starting my job at Regal Elementary School in Spokane, WA I knew I was in trouble. I hadn’t taught for eleven years, and these kids from the ‘rough side of town’ were nothing like the farm kids in the Willamette Valley near Portland, where I’d begun teaching 16 years before. I’d had a lot of fun setting up my room, organizing the space, and had put my rules chart on the board. My first rule? “Treat each other kindly.” The kids had no clue what that meant. A week later the rules changed. “Eyes front please.” If the kids didn’t know how to treat each other with kindness, they knew they had eyes, they knew where the front of the room was, and they knew I expected them to point their eyes in that direction, with good manners attached! Actually, we practiced. It turned out the front of the room was wherever Mrs. Tippin was standing. A game became a way of life in the classroom, and opened the possibility for learning – all kinds of learning!
Rules matter. Without rules, classrooms turn into chaos. Families malfunction. Societies spin out of control. God knew this when the world was created, bringing order out of chaos. The same was true when God gave Moses the Decalogue – the ‘ten words’ or commands we’ve heard this morning.
Commandments are unconditional – “You shall not…” in Exodus 20, like Mrs. Tippin’s “Eye’s front please”. There is no choice. Nothing happened in my classroom until every person was looking at me. The ten commandments are set in the context of covenant, or promise. Until the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, the onus of covenants has been on God: Would God flood the world again? Would Abraham’s offspring prosper and find a new homeland in Canaan?
Now, generations later, the children of Abraham have thrived, threatening Pharaoh. They’ve been expelled from Egypt, and are on their journey to the promised land of Canaan! It is time for this new people-group to have a rule of life – a way of being – in this new world. They are no longer slaves. They belong only to God, and to one another. No one will force them to build bricks… now they will build a future together. But how? What is their purpose? How do they use their time? Their energy? How do they function together? How do they live?
God who has kept covenant, now needs a promise from them. Will they obey God’s voice? Will they keep covenant with God? “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all people. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” God’s taking a big risk… God has freed these people, liberated them from oppression, has defeated their pursuers, has prepared a future… God is standing at the front of a classroom, sensing the tension, wondering if the students are going to honor the preparations made, the care and concern invested, the vision and purpose for the future…. “Class – out of all the students in this school, you are mine. We will do remarkable things. I have some great things to show you. Are you with me?” What would the kids say???
Yes!!! ‘Everything the Lord has spoken, we will do!” Okay! They were off and running. The next step was to review the rules. All ten of them. There were so many, they had to have two charts up on the wall! (God did a really clever thing to help us all remember them, but you have to wait until the end to find out what it was!)
The two charts/tablets divided the commands into two categories: the first showing the Israelites their relationship with God…
1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
2. You shall not make idols.
3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
And the second tablet, showing them their relationship with one another…
5. Honor your father and your mother.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet.
What is often times overlooked is the interrelationship of the two tablets to one another. Walter Brueggeman says, “The second tablet is not just a set of good moral ideas. It contains conditions of viable human life, non-negotiable conditions rooted in God’s own life and God’s ordering of the world. Thus, it’s important to “get it right” about Yahweh, in order to “get it right” about neighbor… it is not the case simply that Israel must attend both to God and to neighbor, but that the WAY of attending to God determines our ways of attending to neighbor and vice versa. It is precisely the worship of the God of the exodus that provide the elemental insistence and passionate imagination to reshape human relations in healing, liberating ways.” [p.840]
Does it not excite you that the same God we claim, adore and worship is the God who, so many years ago, loved and liberated a people, and then asked them to live in a liberated, loving way? “Treat each other kindly.” “What does that look like, Lord? We’ve been beaten, abused, scourged, and lived under the cruel hand of Pharaoh. We can’t do what we don’t know.” God’s answer? “You no longer belong to Pharaoh – you belong to me, and only to me. Your belonging transforms you from an exploited people to a beloved people… a people capable of kindness, rather than cruelty.”
God has liberated us, and asks us to do the same. God’s love has liberated us from darkness, and brought us into light. God’s love has freed us from isolation, and brought us into belonging. God’s love has healed us from bitterness, and brought us into new life. How has God liberated you? How does ordering your life with God, liberate you to order your life with others? This was the purpose of God’s commands then, as it is now. To liberate people to love first, and then live – freely.
I John 5 reads in part: ‘By this we know that we love the children of God [each other], when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
Well, they were to an attorney. At least, he used the commandments as a way to test Jesus. “Teacher”, he said, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Which one would you pick? It probably depends on the day, your mood, the people you’re with… #5 used to be one of my favorites, when the boys were home and driving me crazy! Jesus answered the lawyer with not just one, but two… and really, he gave the attorney all ten of the commandments. (I told you I had a trick up my sleeve!)
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.” (And… it’s the first tablet! The first four commandments drawing out our relationship with God!) “And there is a second like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (That’s the second tablet! If you love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself, you can’t possibly murder, steal, lie, cheat, covet, or dishonor them.) And then Jesus said this startling thing: “On these two commands hang all the law and the prophets.” Brueggeman again: “…the way of attending to God determines our ways of attending to neighbor and vice versa.” If we obey these two unconditional commands, to love God and to love neighbor, we will have satisfied all the law and understood all that the prophets had to teach us. Now, that’s liberating!
Do not let anyone steal your joy in following God obediently. Wisdom, the teacher who speaks in Ecclesiastes is exactly right – we are to honor God and keep God’s commands. The ten commandments were given as a gift, by a redemptive God who loved his people. God not only wanted the children of Israel to survive in the wilderness, God wanted them to flourish, and in order to do so, they all had to follow and obey. This was made possible through their devotion and obedience. But they were not always faithful – and neither are we. They were not always obedient. Neither are we. But they were always called back to love. And so are we. By a God who is full of mercy and grace. Who rescued his people in the wilderness many, many times. Who rescues us in our wilderness, over and over again. Why? Because we belong to him. Because God loves us.
Wisdom warns us of judgment for every deed, including every secret thing – whether good or evil. I believe there will be judgment, but I won’t judge you. Cindy won’t judge you. Your best friend won’t judge you. Your worst enemy won’t judge you. You know who sacred scripture says will judge you? The one who loved you enough to die for you, and for every deed – including every secret thing – whether good or evil – you have done. Jesus’ life and death, and his life in us now, brought us redemption from fear and oppression. Wisdom may have warned us, but Jesus won us. ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.” Jesus, point for point, has matched the law and the prophets – not with fear, but with love. God welcomes us into these commands, not out of duty or compulstion or with anxiety or dread… God welcomes us with redemption and love. And we respond… our love for God, out of God’s love for us. Our love for neighbor, out of our love for God. What a joyful, circular, liberating, rule of life!
John 15:12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.”